The autumn of nationalism is finally upon us. Following the Scottish independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, Catalonia is holding a vote on Nov. 9 on whether to secede from Spain. The situation is a bit different there, since the Spanish government considers the vote illegal and Madrid will likely not recognize the result if Catalans support independence, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis.
But Catalonia isn’t the only region taking inspiration from Scotland. European regions with separatist tendencies from Flanders to Venice to Greenland are keeping a close eye on the Scottish result.
Could Scotland trigger a wave of disgruntled regions to cut ties with their mother countries? A number of commentators have been reading global significance into next week’s vote. The referendum is at its core “a fight over the world of multicultural modernity that makes today’s global economy possible, but also leaves many people with a deep hunger for the sense of national identity it obliterates,” writes Neil Irwin in the New York Times.
While not commenting specifically on other movements, Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond has also said that this is the start of a trend. In an interview last year, he told me that open markets and the decreased risk of invasion have meant that “the disadvantages of smallness have disappeared” for European countries.
I’m a bit skeptical of this line of thinking, which seems to return every time a new country declares independence—a pretty rare occurrence since the end of the Cold War. There was much talk of the “Kosovo precedent” after 2008. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 had some pundits predicting a “wave of self-determination,” which never really came to pass.
The fact is, there’s still a bias among international institutions and governments against adjusting existing borders (though governments still often disagree of where those borders actually are). When it happens, the circumstances are usually pretty exceptional—in the cases of South Sudan, Kosovo, and East Timor, independence came after years of ethnic violence and concerted international pressure. So, while some overly cautious officials in Beijing may be nervous this week, Scotland’s independence vote probably doesn’t actually mean that much for Xinjiang or Tibet.
While I don’t have a strong opinion on the wisdom of Scottish independence, there may be a positive international precedent in peaceful national separation. As we’ve seen from recent events like ISIS’s efforts to obliterate the legacy of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East and Russian annexation of Crimea, borders usually aren’t redrawn without military aggression and bloodshed. Czechoslovakia aside, there are relatively few precedents for peaceful “velvet divorces” in recent history. A prominent example of nations parting (relatively) amicably might not be the worst thing in the world.